The Very Large Array
Episode #3 of the course “Most ambitious science projects”
Located in the desert and including hundreds of square miles near Magdalena, New Mexico, the Very Large Array (VLA) is considered one of the biggest telescopes in the world. It is comprised of 27 single radio antennas, each 82 feet (~25 m) in diameter. The antennas are shaped like a “Y” with arms 13 miles (~21 km) in length. The arms collect signals from many of the universe’s brightest objects. The sister project, the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), is an arrangement of 10 radio antennas that reach 5,531 miles (~8,901 km) from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. The VLA and VLBA produce detailed images of heavenly objects that are both close to the moon and all the way out in the observable edge of the known universe.
The VLA cost over 300 million dollars to build and 15 million dollars a year to maintain. Over 280 personnel help maintain the array.
Uses for Science
Because radio waves can cut through the dust of the cosmos that obstructs a lot of objects, the VLA and VLBA can view images that optical telescopes fail to see. While using the VLA, scientists were able to examine the black hole in the middle of the Milky Way. They could also search for the beginnings of gamma-ray bursts in far-off nebulae and, in 1989, obtained radio transmit from the Voyager 2 satellite as it traveled by Neptune. That transit yielded the first close up pictures of the gas mass and its moons.
The VLBA gauges movements in the Earth’s orientation in the universe. By looking carefully at distant, virtually static objects like quasars over time, scientists can discern any observable changes in Earth’s space orientation. Earth’s orientation can be put somewhat out of sync with substantial earthquakes like the recent one that happened in Japan.
Uses for Practical Life
Choose any section in a contemporary astronomy textbook and you will see some information or theory based on information retrieved with the VLA and VLBA. The VLBA also collects data on the paths of asteroids that pass close to Earth that could help scientists foresee if one is on a collision course with Earth.
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